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Final Tweaks: Hidden Agendas, Alignments, & other Oddities in my Dark Sun Campaign

dark sun logo transAs I mentioned in a previous blog, From Hyperborea to Athas: Inspirations for a Dark Sun Campaign, my Detroit D&D group – not to be confused with my Toledo D&D group – is restarting their campaign in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting this week.  In just a few hours, we will be gathering to do the final pre-campaign bookwork and organization: create and approve characters, decide the party’s make-up, and meet with me one-on-one so I can impart a secret background “agendas” for them to incorporate into their character histories.

We have five players at the moment, and some debate over whether or not to fill in the sixth seat – and of course, who will fill in the empty seat.  We tend to organize this campaign via Facebook, and there are two candidates being put forth at this time – hopefully, my players can arrive at a consensus tonight as to which should make the final character.  Personally, I am remaining neutral, as I have only met and interacted a couple times with the two fellows being debated over, and I tend to be an equal opportunity DM – I’ll DM to anyone who shows a genuine interest and will show up to my game!

Looking over a few last minute tweaks, I am finding myself contemplating a few different sources – Frank Herbert’s Dune and a couple of blogs I read this week – to figure out how I want to handle certain facets of the campaign.

Hidden Agendas

It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to compare the world of Athas to that of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels.  Now I am considering adding sandworms and spice mining to Athas any time soon, but I am looking more and more at the political and social intrigue that existed in the book Dune, and how I can use that in making my Dark Sun campaign a little more intense.

So as I work with my players to create their characters, I will partnering with them to work on secret and hidden agendas for them to add to their character’s backstory.  I think that if each of the player-characters has a secret goal they are working toward, it could really add a new dimension to the role-playing elements in my campaign.  I’m hoping that players will devise their own “plans-within-plans” as they adventure together in order to see their hidden agenda completed.  Of course, some of the agendas might not be compatible, or could even be counter to each other, which might make for a little inner party conflict now and then – and so much the better, by my thinking!

Ideally, the hidden agendas should be completed by the time the characters end the Heroic Tier, and then I’ll have another one-on-one sit down to discuss a new agenda for the next tier.  And because I expect characters to work at making their goal a reality, I plan on rewarding experience points – and possibly items or boons – for meritorious role-playing to accomplish their agenda.

Having characters which have their own agendas in the campaign might make for some very sticky situations, and the deadly nature of Athas makes it hard to always do the “right” thing – which leads me to my next tweak…

Alignments

I read a really thought-provoking blog this week about it being “Time To Chuck Alignment”.  Michael (at Mike’s D&D Blog) posted a good argument for why alignment in D&D 4E is almost completely superfluous, and the commentors on his blog –including yours truly – could not have agreed more!  Without spells, powers, and magic items specifically tied to having one particular alignment, there is really no reason to bother players with trying to adhere to one.  Oh sure, monsters and NPCs will still have alignment, so that I, as DM, will have quick-and-dirty benchmark for how they will react to the player-characters, but for characters, alignment is more of a role-playing crutch or an outright hindrance to their behavior.

One of the commentors to Mike’s blog mentioned the Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel system of Belief/Instinct/Goal as a good replacement for the current alignment system of D&D 4E, and upon further reading, I could not agree more!

There is a really fascinating write-up entitled Belief Workshop on the Burning Wheel Wiki, and I think it would fit well into helping players not only write their character histories, but also have them form a more solid role-playing persona in a short amount of time.

There was also a good write-up about the Instincts on the Shadowrun forums , and they encompass things that the character automatically does without having to tell the DM.  Requesting characters to work out a short list of “always”, “never”, and “if-thens” that apply to their characters is another great way to develop their persona, and should give me some insight into what sorts of “hot buttons” I can push to put the characters on edge.

In fact, the Hidden Agendas I plan on using should, if done right, automatically form one of the player-characters’ Beliefs.  After creating Beliefs and Instincts, it should be a simple thing to tie the characters into an origin

Origin Stories & “Revolving Doors”

I mentioned I was inspired by a “couple blogs” and the other comes from an official source.  I read and strongly agree with many points that Chris Perkins raised in his Point of Origin article in this month’s The Dungeon Master Experience column.  Tying the characters into a common origin point is a very important thing to do at the beginning of the campaign, as I think it forms one of the cornerstones in the foundation of a strong and well-built campaign.  As it happens, I have a rather devious and nasty origin story to tie my player-characters together, which will give them not only a common ground for teamwork, but a common enemy as well.  I will definitely blog about my evil Dungeon Master machinations under a Dark Sun in a later blog, as I don’t want to give out any hints that might be read by one of my players.

But another facet which I think is of equal importance as that of a shared origin is in figuring out where to stick a “revolving door” in the campaign.  Good campaigns last a long time – a couple years at least –  and there is likely to be new characters brought in for any number of reasons: character death, a change of player, any number role-playing issues, etc.  As such, having a way to introduce a new character into the campaign with a minimal amount of plot disruption is a really important consideration – otherwise you end up with a terrible mess on your hands as whole plot lines suddenly derail in mid-campaign.

In my previous campaign up here in Detroit, my Ebon Cabal was the perfect “MacGuffin” to bring in new characters.  The Cabal was an organization consisting of handlers – called Hands – sponsoring teams of adventuring heroes all over the world.  As such, if a character died (or fled or went into exile, etc.), then a Hand could assign a new hero to the team with very little mess or fuss.  I neglected to put a revolving door in my Toledo campaign, which is causing me quite a DM headache, as now in the late Heroic Tier, I have several players wanting to switch out characters, and I have no handy “MacGuffin” to use!

So I made sure to have a nice “revolving door” in my Dark Sun campaign origin plot line, to make sure that when something horrible befalls a hero, a new one can be brought in relatively quickly.

Portable Devices at the Gaming Table

Many DMs consider iPhones, iPads, Blackberries, and other personal devices to be really a pain during gaming sessions, but I am going to try an experiment to use them as part of the role-playing experience.  I run my gaming sessions with a laptop, and so I am going to use a messenger program (ie. Yahoo) to allow players to send me messages anytime during the game, even during combats.  Given that a certain amount of gaming will be done in the city of Tyr, this will allow characters to break up and do their own thing, while I am role-playing with other parts of the group.

Also, if a character has the telepathy wild talent, they can always send messages to each other via portable devices without the others noticing.  Or even pass messages, as if their characters were off alone and discussing the others.  There is the possibility for a lot more intrigue this way, and I expect that several of the player-characters’ hidden agendas will be advanced using texts and IMs.  I think there is a lot of potential for using technology like this to enhance the D&D gaming experience, and I look forward to seeing well how it works in this new Dark Sun campaign!

So expect to see a few of my future blogs to be discussing how my tweaks for the Dark Sun campaign are progressing.  I’ve never had the chance to run the setting before 4E and I am very excited about the potential of Dark Sun to be a unique and exciting play experience.  I plan to do my best to inspire my players to get into the grim and gritty setting, and make their own mark on the world of Athas, and I can’t wait to see what sorts of characters they come up with for this new campaign!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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